Wild at heart

Wild at heart

Spectacular scenery, vibrant wildlife, and the interesting tales of the Masai tribe sew an unforgettable Kenyan experience, writes Ramakrishna Upadhya.

Ever since we planned the Kenyan Safari, the phrase “Masai Mara” kept ringing in my head constantly, with pictures of wild animals roaming freely coming before the mind’s eye all too frequently. A visit to Africa involves taking sufficient health precautions, and as we went through the chores of taking Yellow Fever shots, Polio drops and Malaria pills, the excitement of going to the dream destination increased manifold.

The Kenyan Airlines flight of about 6 hours from Mumbai to Nairobi was uneventful, but as we approached the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the booming voice of the flight captain announced that the outside weather was clear but slightly cloudy, with the temperature hovering around 14 degrees celsius.

As the first myth of a ‘hot continent’ had been blown, we quickly put on the jackets to beat the chilly winds and made our way to the luggage bay disgorging our heavy suitcases. A courteous travel agent cum driver who spoke fine English was at hand to drive us to Wilson Airport, 13 km from Nairobi.

The cute little Wilson Airport was already buzzing with tourists and a dozen or so small aircraft, all bound for Masai Mara. As we got in the 14-seater Cessna aircraft, the friendly captain explained the security drill in case of emergency, adding with a chuckle that he was quite sure that he would safely land at Masai Mara in about 45 minutes.

As the aircraft started descending and the vast, green expanse of Masai Mara grasslands came into view, I looked out of the aircraft window for the air strip. But there was none! The unfazed captain, however, chose a flat piece of land that had been paved with small stones. I have palpitation at the time of landings, and given my habit of giving the pilots ‘10 on’ for the way they ease the aircraft on the tarmac, this one, I thought, was better than the one at Nairobi!

Voila! There appeared short, stocky Francis in his Panama cap, quickly identifying us as from Safari Tours in India. The seven-day safari had well and truly begun!
Francis M Kamau, who turned out to be an excellent guide with Encyclopaedic information, informed us that our place of accommodation for the next three days was just an hour’s drive and that we would get to see some animals along the way. We had hardly driven for five minutes through Masai Mara’s open grasslands and what a spectacle awaited us!

First sights

Nothing had prepared me in my wildest dreams to witness hundreds of wild beasts roaming in gay abandon. The black or darkish brown wild beasts with their long mane and goatee largely move in a line over several kilometres as far as eye can see. On closer look, they remind us of our mendicant rishis in peace with the world — except that they are busy hogging grass all the time. Their voracious eating habit has the effect of using thousands of lawn mowers incessantly, but their famed migratory instinct ensures that they are never short of food.

As we drove along, we saw zebras either in pairs or groups of 15 to 20, different varieties of antelopes, giraffes popping here and there, cape buffaloes, warthogs and several types of birds. Unlike our sanctuaries and national parks which are thickly wooded, the beauty of African safari is that there is nothing to hinder your vision for miles together, and you are in the midst of an open canvas of Nature, seeing animals in their natural habitat. The safari vehicles with detachable roof-tops give a 360 degree view of the forest and it is quite safe to drive as close as possible to the animals. But the first lesson we got from ‘professor’ Francis was, “Don’t ever attempt to get out of the vehicle... and you will be safe.”

After a quick but sumptuous buffet lunch, rounded off with mild Tusker beer, everyone climbed on to safari vehicles, which normally move in groups of 20 to 30. It was a bright and sunny evening with a mild breeze, but Francis had warned, “There is nothing predictable in a safari, and sometimes, you have to be lucky...”

Indeed, a huge piece of luck awaited us. After witnessing more wild beasts, zebras and giraffes, we saw a few vehicles converging at a spot. We quickly joined them. Pulling out our binoculars, we saw a lone cheetah hiding behind a small bush and watching intently a dozen impalas grazing unmindfully of the lurking danger. The cheetah was about 200 m away. It gingerly took a few steps and stopped behind another bush, closer to the flock. As it crouched to barely eye level and plotted its next move for nearly half an hour, everyone waited with bated breath with telescopic cameras in hand. All of a sudden, as the cheetah took off at lightning speed, the impalas ran helter-skelter. The cheetah targeted a young impala, which made a zigzag run for its life, only to be caught about 20 m from our vehicle. On Day One of our safari, we were witness to a kill right before our eyes!

The morning safari of Day Two was reserved for a visit to a Masai community hutment at Orboma village on the outskirts of our camp. The 22-year-old Nchorira, who calls himself Tom, sporting bright red-checked shawl and colourful beads, stepped forward to explain in chaste English the Masai way of life.

The 350-strong Masai community lived with their 300 cattle in houses made of mud and cowdung and built in a circle to protect themselves from wild animals. Taking us into one of those tiny houses, Tom explained their food habits holding a long, bugle-like tube in hand: “We draw blood (about 8-10 litres) from the cow’s body by pinching a nerve in its neck. Our food consists of three-four glasses of blood and milk, both morning and evening. Occasionally, once a week or so, we have meat which is shared by the community.”

The afternoon safari was filled with sightings of Masai giraffe, Somali giraffe, Rothschild giraffe, wild boars, Eland antelopes, guinea fowls and incredibly beautiful ostriches. We saw a few lions here and there from as close as 50 to 100 metres, but nothing better than one with a large face and a spectacular mane, lolling on the grass.

River lifeline

On Day Three, we visited the Mara river which flows down from Mt Kilimanjaro across the border in Tanzania. We didn’t come across our mentally-pictured Discovery channel scene of hundreds of wild beasts doing their sometimes suicidal crossing, but we saw plenty of crocodiles and hippopotamus along the river route to confirm its treacherous history.
Days Four and Five were devoted to bird watching at Naivasha and Nakuru lakes, and it was no less exciting. The 143 sq km sprawling Naivasha Lake, which has offered backdrop to several films, was teeming with a mind-boggling variety of birds. The 90-minute boat ride in the lake, which is also home to around 1,000 hippos, was a sheer delight. A visit to the Nakuru Lake later — which is famous for being home to millions of Flamingos — was a bit of a disappointment as we saw only a few hundred Flamingos. We were told that an abnormal rise in the lake waters had forced them to migrate.

Days Six and Seven were devoted to Amboseli National Park which prides on hosting over 1,200 elephants. The generally flat, dry and dusty topography of Amboseli is dotted with small extinct volcanic hills and rocks. As a form of Nature’s gift to animals, water flowing from Mt Kilimanjaro, as well as natural spirings en route, form a marshy area that provides both water and green grass to the elephants throughout the year. We saw hordes of giant African elephants with a number of calf elephants in tow. Francis sometimes managed to park our vehicle as close as one or two metres from the herd, and the experience was... exhilarating, humbling, slightly unnerving, but very, very memorable.

On my return, I find that my dreams are now laced with so many wonderful pictures imprinted on mind, as also those captured on camera, that they are eons superior to what I had only imagined. Thank you, Kenya!

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